Sexual assault on campus: students organize to break the silence and end the violence

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Sexual assault is a major issue on college campuses across the country. Roughly one in four college women will experience some form of gender violence, and about 80 percent of all assailants are acquainted with the victim. To make matters worse, many colleges and universities refuse to respond appropriately to reported attacks.

In October 2012, one Amherst student exposed her school’s ineffectual process when she reported being raped. In an account published in the campus newspaper, Angie Epifano describes the horrendous way she was treated by a school counselor: “I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape?” In response, numerous Amherst students and alums came forward to talk about their own negative experiences with reporting attacks, and began to pressure the administration into making action on these cases a priority.

Amherst isn’t the only school facing organized protest. This past November, several students filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the University of Connecticut, charging their Title IX rights were violated when the school dismissed or mishandled their reports of rape and harassment.

Student activism. Where concern for survivors is missing on an institutional level, committed students have come forward to support, advocate, and raise awareness of the issues. At the University of Connecticut, the student group
Revolution Against Rape (RAR) works to “create lasting change” at their university. According to Matt Tuscano, an active member of the group, they seek “policy or structural change,” such as creating an administrative position that works exclusively on combating personal violation and advocating for victims. Tuscano welcomes community support as a way to help address campus apathy.

Student members of Radical Women have been organizing at their own campuses. The authors of this article are part of Break the Silence at Vassar (BTSAV). It began two years ago as a website for students to anonymously share their stories of sexual assault and to dispel the myth that “it doesn’t happen here.” Break the Silence has expanded into a collective of activists working with the student body to raise consciousness and solidarity through art, including a photo campaign and community quilt.

Charlotte Strauss-Swanson is involved with a student group, Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), that provides workshops and speakers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She also reports that at her former school, Occidental College in Los Angeles, “a group of students and a number of professors pressed charges against the school for violating the Clery Act,” a federal law that requires colleges to accurately track and report campus crimes. She says the movement was powerful because “students addressed problems within the educational system itself.”

What’s to be done? A number of institutional changes are necessary. Schools need to make it their first priority to protect the victim in any case of sexual assault or relationship abuse. The fact-finding burden should be on the school, not the injured person. However, victims must be in charge of their own cases, and have a voice in what sort of charges or disciplinary actions take place.

In order to facilitate this process, schools are duty-bound to create Sexual Assault Response Teams to immediately investigate any cases of personal violation, as well as to advocate for victims throughout the proceedings. These teams must be skilled in dealing with assault issues and independent of administrative pressure.

Students need to be fully aware of the rights provided by Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. It requires higher education to have an established, proactive process to address sexual violence. Know Your IX, a national student-run campaign, provides resources for students who want to understand the law and file complaints.

Many schools include training on consent as part of their first-year orientation program. But this vital part of campus-life education must be extended beyond the initial two weeks of school and address a broader range of issues. Bystander Intervention Trainings are essential to informing all students, faculty, and staff about how to prevent situations from escalating into rape and how to help a victim who confides in them.

Since sports teams and fraternities have a higher rate of sexual assault, athletic departments and Greek systems should be required to offer specific, ongoing training that addresses consent, negative gender roles, and how to oppose the pack mentality.

The prevalence of sexual assault on campuses reflects the way that capitalism’s deep-rooted misogyny encourages violence as an expression of domination and entitlement. Campus attacks are not an individual problem, but are signs of a larger system of oppression. The rise in student opposition shows that progress can be made toward creating campuses that are safer for everyone.

Willow Carter and Sara Cooley, coordinators of the Feminist Alliance at Vassar College, are Women’s Studies majors and leaders in confronting transphobia and sexual assault. Send feedback to and

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